Reading Gramsci’s prison letters in an age of catastrophe
Letters from Prison, Volumes I & II by Antonio Gramsci, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, edited by Frank Rosengarten, Columbia University Press (2011)
I picked up Antonio Gramsci’s letters several months ago with the idea that I might learn more about the origins of the famous Sardinian theorist’s break with the rigidity of late nineteenth-century political Marxism. Gramsci (1891-1937) – theorist and leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1924 until his death in a fascist prison – is best known for his attack on the economic and historical determinism of his contemporaries in the Party. He argued instead for the centrality of culture, intellectuals, and civic institutions shaping and guiding not only the “hegemony” but the agency of the working class.
Yet after reading only a few letters – to his wife, his sister-in-law, his brother – I found myself moved by a very different set of questions: how does one begin to comprehend a catastrophe? What is the affective landscape of a political prisoner who dies of multiple degenerative illnesses, while fascism engulfs not only his country but – or so it appears in 1937 – the entire world? How are Gramsci’s theories perhaps not only theories of the state, but theories of failure, loss, defeat?
The letters, to prison-approved family members only, are marked by three distinct phases in Gramsci’s imprisonment – from the island prison of Ustica while he is under indictment, to the prison in Turi after his sentencing by a fascist tribunal, and finally to two different prison clinics, at Civitavecchia and then Cusumano. His initial phrase of imprisonment at Ustica is by far his most optimistic: not only is his health still relatively good, but even the prison itself seems more like a carceral summer camp than what we’d expect from a fascist jail. Gramsci has access to books, writing, food from beyond the walls in the island – he is even able to organize a kind of Marxist school for other prisoners. Of this early time Gramsci writes that “my mind is tranquil” and that he has accepted, “much like a prisoner in war,” that imprisonment is his fate.
In Gramsci’s own estimation, prison is acceptable to those who have the “will” to intellectually understand their condition. “Will” is perhaps Gramsci’s guiding idea: more than just the self-possession that he can “count on his own strength,” “will” for him is a kind of mediation between reality and subjectivity. Gramsci’s famous phrase, “optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will,” which he utters more than once in closing in his missives, was for him perhaps the ethics of communism: one had a duty to analyze, to understand, but also to continue, to keep fighting, as long as one has breath to draw.
Gramsci’s letters from prison often take the form of parables, in part “under pressure” from prison authorities who were quick to censor him. But one also gets the sense that Gramsci preferred the mediated distance of a story: a combination of the material world and the author’s subjectivity. “I’ve always had an invincible aversion to letter writing” he tells his wife Giulia (or “Julca,” as he often refers to her) made worse by the “sharp, radical break with the past” he experiences in his life as a prisoner. All this makes the mediation of reality more difficult.
In one of his final parables, which we can read as a guide to Gramsci’s method, he advises his son Delio not to speculate upon why elephants cannot fly, do not have wheels on their feet, or (despite their large brains and capacity for abstract thought) do not rule the world. It is “already difficult to study the history that did take place” as so many of the records and the names “have already been lost.” And that his question likewise is too anthropocentric: perhaps it is elephants who wonder why people are not more like them?
The parable of the elephant is perhaps not only about the impossibility of reality – “the names have already been lost” – but also about how reality is looking back at Gramsci himself. Why are you not more like me, the elephant asks. The world is the elephant, in all its impossibility; how does one mark political commitments when reality is fundamentally strange, ever eluding the grasp of our knowledge? When certainty is impossible, how can one act? For Gramsci, this was now a practical and not merely a philosophical question.
Another of Gramsci’s animal parables stars a pair of sparrows he feeds in his jail cell. The first acts “domesticated,” but “without permitting too much familiarity,” allowing Gramsci to feed it but refusing to be held – it keeps a familiar if relational distance, never surrendering its animal nature or its peculiar quest, to perch atop an unstable tamarind bottle. The second sparrow is lethargic, gorges on soaked bread, and wishes to perch on Gramsci’s lap, a habit which Gramsci finds “nauseatingly domestic.” Gramsci says this second bird, “which isn’t lively,” will not last long given not only its diet but the inadvertent kicks Gramsci gives it as it rests close to his feet. It is the first bird, and not the second, that Gramsci calls the “lord of the cell.”
Gramsci also describes his time in Ustica as being like Nansen’s journey to the North Pole, in which the explorer allows his ship to be encased in ice for three and a half years in order to harness the east-west currents of the northern oceans. “He moved with excruciating slowness in accord with ice,” Gramsci writes, and “my state of mind can be compared to that of Nansen’s sailors during this fantastic voyage.” For Gramsci, to be “lord of his cell” was a question of will and patience – more a matter of moving with the currents than attempting to resist them. Keep your wits about you, he seems to suggest; stay spare and tight and reserved. Indeed, one could even say Nansen uses his ice-prison to his own ends, much as Gramsci in his imprisonment found the remove to read and write.
This “aquarium life” as he calls it, is “not as monotonous” as one might think – like a tree trunk ruined in a storm, he analogizes, there are insects at its roots, growing fungus, all things one can perceive if one is willing to look beyond the initial calamity of the tree’s fall. “I’ve acquired the psychology of the perfect convict, I let the days go by one after the other. I don’t get excited…I don’t pose problems for myself that are insoluble.” While Gramsci would be forbidden from using such language, he adopts the stoicism of a revolutionary soldier, who quietly bides his time until he can act again.
Yet even in this moment of relative tranquility one begins to feel that perhaps not all is okay with our Antonio. His chief correspondent is not his wife, Giulia, but rather her sister, Tania. To his wife he keeps his news mostly optimistic and vague; to Tania he is far more forthcoming about his feelings and needs, and he writes to her far more often. While there has been speculation that Gramsci had, or wanted to have, an affair with Tania, this seems far less likely than the possibility that his own emotional state was in a kind of petrification – that correspondence with Giulia evoked too many passions and feelings. “I am made of stone and hope to harden more” he writes his brother Carlo, after admonishing Carlo’s “romantic” feelings and “morbid sensitivities.”
Gramsci’s polar voyage encased in a kind of emotional ice begins to break down as soon as he is sentenced by Mussolini’s Special Tribunal. His health begins to dramatically fail. He complains of his first attack of “St. Anthony’s Fire,” rashes of boils and sores that cover his whole body. His teeth begin to fall out. Here, he begins to lash out against Tania, his sole confidant and also the most loyal of his supporters. She often not only sends him care packages, but arranges for his lawyers, smuggles letters to his comrades, and (despite Gramsci’s protests) arranges at last for an outside doctor to come and see him.
Gramsci bitterly complains that he is subject to her will, that he is “doubly imprisoned” because of her, that she has “intensified his isolation.” Gramsci rails against and what he calls Giulia’s “sordid Jewishness” and claims that she “lacks the imagination” in her limited practicality to understand what he experiences in prison.1Even though Gramsci’s wife as well as his two best friends (his sister-in-law Tania and the economist Piero Sraffa) identified as Jewish, Gramsci displayed a distinct blindness to the role of antisemitism in Italy, insisting to Tania that after the Haskalah, Jews faced no discrimination in Italy greater than their Protestant counterparts. Less than 10 years later, more than 1/5th of Italy’s Jewish population would perish in the Holocaust. He criticizes Giulia’s poor spelling (despite Italian not being her native language), and even goes so far as banish his brother Carlo from his correspondence. In the early 1930s, Gramsci attempts to divorce Giulia through Tania, demanding that Tania arrange it (Gramsci’s best friend, Piero Sraffa, refers to Gramsci’s wishes in this regard as “monstrous and absurd”). Tania refuses.
Gramsci gives a kind of accounting for his behavior to Tania, writing that “I become adamant asserting my own will” after objecting to her attentions, “just to prove I am still alive.” This time he includes perhaps his most monstrous fable: a mother, regarded as a long suffering saint in Gramsci’s Sardinian community, has locked her own son in a windowless pig sty, keeping him tied by a metal chain to the floor, while throwing chicken feed and table leftovers in a bucket in his cell. “He was covered with filth, only his eyes blinked reddish, like those of a nocturnal animal,” the young Gramsci remembers of the boy. It is the most gruesome image of prison Gramsci offers to date in his correspondence, and one gets the sense that it is directed as much at Tania as it is his actual jailers. Gramsci’s will, once a source of his strength, is destroying his final human connections to others. His is a discipline without a revolution.
By the time of his transfer to Turin, it’s clear prison is killing Gramsci. He writes of it as a “monstrous machine that crushes and levels according to phases.” My “thread to the world is broken” he tells Tania; “I turn in my cell like a fly that does not know how to die.” Not only is health failing, he is in constant pain: his body is wracked with fevers; his gums expel blood; his teeth are falling out and he cannot eat solid food; his intestines are on fire with agony. His most frequent requests to Tania, beyond the books and magazines he needs for his studies, are for sleeping pills and amphetamines. He writes that his insomnia makes him feel he is “going mad.”
Gramsci’s earlier metaphor of being snugly held within ice while his boat travels the current is transformed to another far darker oceanic metaphor: the cannibalism of shipwrecks. Gramsci asks: who among us would say they’d eat human flesh before they were compelled to? Rather than say one is naive to proclaim one would not eat other humans, Gramsci offers a contextual account – it’s perfectly rational to constitute one’s identity around this prohibition, so long as one isn’t starving.
And yet, “a few days later” Gramsci muses, “when food has given out, the idea of cannibalism presents itself in a different light.” Rather than suggest one can stray from a coherent self and return, Gramsci proposes that the cannibal is now a different person. “Between these two moments, that in which the alternative presented itself as a purely theoretical hypothesis and that in which the alternative presents itself with all the force of immediate necessity,” Gramsci writes, “there has been the process of ‘molecular’ transformation.” Those who ate other humans to remain alive are “no longer the people” they once were. Gramsci, perhaps finally discovering Freud, suggests there will be a “split in the personality,” as the self that observes with horror is taken over and subsumed by the new self that acts out of urgent need.
Gramsci makes clear in this letter – where elsewhere he leaves it elliptical – that by the “cannibal” he refers to himself. Prison destroyed him; fascism destroyed him. Not of course his mind which, even as his body decayed, produced some of the most piercing analyses in all of twentieth-century Marxism.
But perhaps – and it is hard to say, because Gramsci did not personalize his writing – his famous arguments that the state, the intellectual, and civil society overdetermine and realign meanings of “class” and “capital” might be seen to form a kind structural homology to his own experience of how state power so brutally affected and redefined his inner being. As in his theories of the state, much is contingent, subject to change; history does not belong to its subject-objects but is rather a constant alignment and re-alignment of social forces, only visible in hindsight. Gone for Gramsci was not only the freedom of his body but the integrity of his spirit; his own “will” had been defeated, or at least transformed. Like the cannibal, his new reality has molded him into a different person.
Gramsci’s final letters to Giulia are unbearable to read. After years of berating her for not writing more detailed letters, of downplaying and belittling her mental illness, and finally of attempting to reject her completely, he begs her to travel to see him as it is clear he will not live much longer. “My dear,” he writes to her, “I have always waited for you…even when I did not write to you because I did not know what to write, how to write, for it seemed to me that you did not want to offer me any pretext or point of contact.” He continues to beg her to travel: “I think the moment has come to put an end to this state of affairs…to bind together again and deeply the ties that have always joined us but have for so many years now become something ethereal and abstract.” In a final letter he ends, “I wonder whether a caress from me could calm you.” Giulia, in ill health and with her family cautioning against the trip, did not visit Gramsci in the end. When he died, less than a year later, only Tania and his brother Carlo attended his funeral.
Oscar Wilde writes in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that socialism will make possible not only lives of leisure, but for people’s artistic and even spiritual sides to quicken and develop. “The Soul of Man Under Fascism” could be an alternative title to Gramsci’s letters, as we witness someone come to the fatal understanding that not only his life, but something in his spirit has been broken by the prisons of Mussolini’s Italy. And perhaps this recalls another of Wilde’s works, as Gramsci becomes a kind of socialist portrait of Dorian Gray, his very body standing as a metonym for the social rot under fascism, the national and even global suicide that was perhaps only temporarily, and at great cost, averted. As Mussolini and Hitler rise in stature and power, Gramsci’s body first revolts and then fails totally.
Many political prison narratives perhaps rightly focus on survivors – Malcolm X and Assata Shakur’s autobiographies come to mind, as do those of Angelo Herndon, Herbert Biberman, and Alvah Bessie. Reading Gramsci’s letters in an historical moment when it seems perhaps we will not survive the next onslaught, whether from climate, disease, or a new wave of fascist leaders (or some combination of them all) raises a different question: how do we live with others until that end? How do we continue to work on things that matter? Is Gramsci’s already-frail body perhaps a better vehicle for the new forms of biopolitical imprisonment that may await some, even many of us? One can read Gramsci as a Marxist Machiavelli, coolly analyzing the development of the state and civil society. And yet one can also read Gramsci as a kind of poet of defeat who asks: how do we understand the emergence of fascism from the hopeful days of 1919, when it seemed revolution was sweeping through Europe? In his last letters to Giulia, it is clear he wanted to dream of elephants with wings, even if such dreams might have prevented the clarity necessary to write what we now know as The Prison Notebooks. Perhaps both are too much to demand of anyone: it surely rent his body, and his soul, asunder.
Benjamin Balthaser is associate professor of multi-ethnic US literature at Indiana University, South Bend. He is the author of Anti-Imperialist Modernism (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and Dedication (Partisan Press, 2011). His current project, Citizens of the Whole World, excavates the cultures of the 20th century radical Jewish American left and anti-Zionism, on contract with Verso Press. His critical and creative work has also appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as American Quarterly, Jacobin, Boston Review, Historical Materialism, and elsewhere.